Special Briefing by Farah Pandith, Special Representative to Muslim Communities

Special Briefing
Farah Anwar Pandith
Special Representative to Muslim Communities
Washington, DC
July 1, 2009

MR. WOOD: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome. Sorry for the delay. I think you all know we had some technical difficulties. I’m very pleased to have with us today Special Representative to Muslim Countries [1] Farah Pandith. And Ms. Pandith’s going to brief you on her new position and the Administration’s efforts to create opportunities for dialogue with Muslims around the world.

So I’m going to turn it over to her in just a second. I just wanted to ask, before asking your questions, if you could identify yourselves and your news organizations, we would greatly appreciate it. Okay, so I’ll turn it over to Ms. Pandith.

MS. PANDITH: Good afternoon. Again, I’m sorry that you all had to wait. Technical difficulties are technical difficulties.

My name is Farah Pandith and I am the Special Representative to Muslim Communities. I thought what I’d do before we do Q&A is to take a couple of minutes and tell you a little bit about my background, because there were a lot of questions on that, and then tell you a little bit about the role that the Secretary envisions for me, and then open it up for questions if that’s all right.

I was born in India and grew up in Massachusetts. I did all my education in Massachusetts. I went to Milton Academy, I went to Smith College, and I went to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. I have had experience working in both the public and private sector. I was vice president of international business for a company outside of – in Boston and had a chance to really think about the international marketplace, so to speak, from a lot of different perspectives. And I think that’s important when you think about the way in which we’re looking at this role: How do you harness the different sectors and how do you think about things in a creative way?

This unique perspective has allowed me to think about what’s possible. And I have worked since 19 – excuse me, since 2003 in three different sectors, three different parts of the United States Government. I was in the U.S. Agency for International Development. I was at the National Security Council at the White House. And for the last two years, I’ve been at the Department of State working in the Europe Bureau.

The role that was created for me in the Europe Bureau was the first of its kind in U.S. history. And it was an opportunity for me to engage with our embassies with Muslims across Western Europe, and I did that for two years. And I’m mentioning it because I think it’s very important when we think about how we’re doing things globally now.

A strong part of thinking about engagement is to understand the nuances that are taking place in different regions. And while I did have a European portfolio, I did have an opportunity over the course of the last couple of years to work with our embassies in South Asia and Africa and in the Middle East. And what that brings to the table, I think, is an opportunity to think about the grassroots level, to think about what mainstream Muslims are thinking and doing and how they want to figure out ways to create dialogue. And that is where this leads us.

This new role is a historic role, and it’s the Secretary’s vision for engagement through our embassies overseas. I had the opportunity to brief her at the end of January on the work we had done in Europe. And in that briefing, she completely got it. She understood the nuances. She understood the need for our country to build relationships with Muslims overseas in Europe in that context.

She is somebody who has been doing engagement for a very long time. This is not just new to her. After all, when she was First Lady, she was the person who created the Iftar at the White House. So this is a long-term interest of hers, and it’s something that she got when we talked.

What she asked me to do is to leverage my experience in Europe and in other parts of the world, to think about how we could have the Department work on Muslim engagement in a way that is out of the box, that is innovative, that is dynamic, that works with embassies so that we’re getting to know the next generation of thinkers. And in this role, I’ll be doing that.

So the Office of the Special Representative to Muslim Communities is a way for us at the State Department to execute her vision. And certainly on the heels of Cairo, when we heard the President talk about the need and his commitment to engage with Muslims, this is our effort to work on that important agenda.

So that’s the history behind this. That’s a little bit about me. And I know that through the questions we have today, you’re going to ask far, far deeper questions than that. But I do want to say I hope that this is one of many briefings that we have. And you’re just getting to know me now, and I look forward to an opportunity to get to know you over the months and years ahead.

QUESTION: Can you take official wire, please?

MS. PANDITH: Certainly, certainly.

MR. WOOD: Arshad.

QUESTION: I’m Arshad Mohammed. I cover the State Department for Reuters. Can you sketch out how you hope to reach out to Muslims around the world – what concrete kinds of things you hope to do, whether it’s town halls or traveling or academic exchanges or whatever?

And secondly, can you – you talked about reaching out to mainstream Muslims around the world. In a certain sense, the much harder target are non-mainstream Muslims. Do you have any ideas on how to try to reach out to, and perhaps improve the image of the United States with Muslims who may be on the fringes, but have strongly held and perhaps negative views of the United States?

MS. PANDITH: I’m an American Muslim, and that’s part of the way in which I look at things, that’s the lens with which I look at things. And if you look at the diversity of Islam in America, it is – it’s multifaceted, it’s nuanced. Our mosques are in every state of our nation. Muslim Americans are from more than 80 different ethnic backgrounds.

And why do I mention this to you? Because I think when you think about approaches for engagement, I take that with me as I think about things. There is no one bullet that’s going to fix everything. There’s not one program that is going to be the magic program to engage with Muslims.

It’s really listening. It’s really understanding what’s taking place on the ground. It’s finding opportunities through our embassies to get to know what others are saying and thinking and dreaming and believing, and acting as a facilitator and a convener and an intellectual partner when we can. I think the might of the United States Government is not only one-way. It’s two-way, it’s how do you approach, how do you bring ideas together, how do you find initiatives that make sense?

I mean, certainly, my experience in Europe tells me how diverse Europe is. I mean, the first-generation Turkish German is not going to have the same kind of approach and thinking as a third-generation Turkish German in Berlin, or a fifth-generation ethnic German. How do you think about these differences even within what city? And I’m using a European example, but I can turn it to you for any other part of the world.

So I think it’s nuance. I think it’s respect. I think it’s listening. I think it’s being creative. And I think it’s creating many different types of initiative to be able to do that. So you mention a town hall, a fantastic mechanism, but it’s not the only way to do that. There are going to be large and small ways in which our embassies will want to engage. And I think our – I’ve been really honored to have a chance to work with our embassies overseas. They are creative people, they have super ideas, and they are looking at ways to actually do exactly what you said: engage. But to whom and how?

You asked another important question. Yes, I used the term “mainstream.” And as we think about the different demographics and the different types of communities in different parts of the world, I will be reaching out to a broad range of them. It isn’t just because they have to like America that I’m going to try to engage with them. What I’m trying to do is trying to foster more dialogue, to find ways to listen where we haven’t before, and to build opportunities for dialogue.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, can you just be a little more concrete other than the town hall example, which is the only one that you’ve sort of picked up? Can you be a little more concrete about other ideas that you may have for ways to actually do this?

MS. PANDITH: Well, there are – listen, you very well know that the public diplomacy arm of the State Department has for decades been engaging with ethnic communities around the world. They use a lot of different mechanisms, whether it’s exchanges or it’s town halls or it’s roundtables or it’s developing and convening meetings with likeminded thinkers that are innovators and entrepreneurs, whether it’s creating a community project to work on a specific event, whether it’s creating a network that didn’t exist before. I think it’s really – it really is important for us to listen to what is needed and to be the arm that actually helps facilitate.

Oh, sure. Absolutely. Please.

QUESTION: First of all, congratulations. I’m Raghubir Goyal from India Globe and Asia Today. Especially in India, it has been received very well by Muslims from around the globe, and so – was there a need for this position? Do you think there is a problem among or with the Muslims around the globe that this position was important? Or what you thinking will bring new (inaudible) in what we had already public diplomacy?

MS. PANDITH: I was actually very overwhelmed with the response in India, and I’m thankful that you’re raising it because I really have to say it was really very special for me as somebody of Indian heritage.

The way the Secretary is thinking about engagement, I mean, there are 1.2 billion Muslims around the world, and we understand that that is an important component for how we think about our actions overseas and how we facilitate dialogue. But the President has made it clear as well that this is a priority for him, and so we are – this is our effort to engage within the Department of State, through our embassies, with that demographic.

QUESTION: Are you traveling with the Secretary to India?

MS. PANDITH: I actually – no, I have no plan right now.

Yes, thank you.

QUESTION: Nina Donaghy Fox News. Is it possible to tell us where your first trip will be to and what you hope to achieve there?

MS. PANDITH: So I’ve been on the job not even a week, and I will – I promise I will tell you where I’m going. But where – I have to consult with my colleagues at the Department to figure out the first few steps.

QUESTION: Is that – can I just follow up? Is there any particular country where you feel there is a particular problem that you want to go to?

MS. PANDITH: No. I mean, I think that the important thing to do, frankly, is to really think about the right approach and what the – you know, what the right trip is going to be. And there’s no perfect place and no terrible place. It’s what’s going to make sense for the schedule and look – and I really look forward to being diverse about my visits, you know, and hitting all the regions of the globe, and the small and big countries.


QUESTION: Nadia Bilbassy with MBC Television, Middle East Broadcasting Center. The previous administration Under Secretary Karen Hughes went to the listening tour to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and some of us covered this story. And they also appointed a special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Conference. And soon they realized that the problem is not about opening dialogue with the Muslim world or the Arab world in particular, but it was about American foreign policy; unless you fundamentally change this, you’re not going to win hearts and minds.

Do you think that you’re going to run into the same problem and soon you’ll realize that that actually is the heart of the matter?

MS. PANDITH: You know, what I do know is that through the opportunity to facilitate a strategic and nuanced and multifaceted approach to engagement, there are going to be a wide range of questions that come up. And I know that because I did this on the ground in Europe. And certainly, foreign policy does come up, but the vast majority of young Muslims that I met were very interested in thinking about their futures and thinking about how to participate in their communities and thinking about what they need to do to engage in building a communication with other countries and with themselves and with the United States.

So I hope that the approach is going to be one in which a lot of questions will come up for sure, but it is – it’s going to be important for us to actually – I said the word “listen” and I said it meaningfully, respectfully listen. Respect and dignity are so important to me, and how we approach and the tone in which we talk and the way in which we think about what people are saying. When I meet the young person who’s 16 in Oslo who is talking about a very critical issue, or the young man that I met, you know, in Bangladesh or any of the countries in between, those issues are real issues, and they have – they’re young. They have decades ahead, and we have to be able to build bridges of dialogue. It’s critically important.

QUESTION: Just to follow up quickly. Some will say as well that you don’t have a problem with Indian Muslims, you don’t have a problem with Indonesian Muslims, but you have a problem with Arab Muslims, and that’s a focus. Will you give more consideration to the Arab world as opposed to the Muslim community as a whole?

MS. PANDITH: I’m going to be equally going across the world to engage.


QUESTION: Yes. The most visible points of engagement so far by the new Administration, I guess, would be the visit by the Secretary to Indonesia and then, two, the President’s trip to Cairo for the speech. So how would you build on those specific visits, and would you see Indonesia as a great vehicle to build a network with Muslim countries and Muslim organizations since they are an example that the Secretary says is a budding democracy, something the U.S. likes?

MS. PANDITH: Indonesia is certainly a very important country. I would not deny that, of course. And I think that what you’ve seen in the priority of both the President and the Secretary is an interest in very old and very different and diverse. And we talked about the word “diversity.” How important is it to understand the diversity of Islam, that what is happening with Muslim communities in northern Africa is not the same as what’s happening to Muslim communities in Indonesia, nor is it the same as what’s happening to Muslim communities in Brazil? How do we think about that?

And so the engagement – you’re using Indonesia as a supermodel, and it is. It’s very important. But we have to be able to understand the breadth and the nuance.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) from Press Trust of India. South Asia has one of the largest concentrations of Muslims in the world – Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. How do you plan to engage the Muslims in that part of the world? Is it going to be different in different countries, or it’s one approach to entire South Asia?

MS. PANDITH: If we do our job right, of course, it is. And it’s not even just a country; it’s understanding the different regions within a country. I can’t hit the word “nuance” enough. I think that what I have understood about successful models of engagement and listening means that you just don’t take a one-stop shop and say I’m going to do it everywhere. It’s really, really taking the time to listen to what is taking place on the ground so that you understand even within cities what the differences are, even within generations and within ethnicities, so that you’re beginning to build dialogue in different ways and not just use one – you know, a one-phase approach to everything.


QUESTION: Thank you. This is Tulin Daloglu with Haberturk. It’s a Turkish daily newspaper. I – you put a lot of emphasis on listening to the Muslims. What is it that you think that Muslims do misperceive about the United States? And when you try to reach out to them, what is it also that you want to give them as the message of the U.S.?

MS. PANDITH: You know, I would never say that Muslims are saying one thing, that there’s one misunderstanding, because there are so many different perspectives when you use that phrase. What I know is, depending on, again, what age group we’re talking about, what the background is of the communities we’re dealing with.

There are a lot – there are some misperceptions about our nation and there are some folks who have a misperception of history or a misperception, in fact, of young people in America. So it really depends, I mean, on what you’re talking about.

QUESTION: But if there is a need to have a special representative to reach out to Muslim communities, there has to be a concern that you perceive that Muslims do misunderstand the United States. So I’m basically asking if you have come up with a special historic representative position, what was the need for that?

MS. PANDITH: What we want to do is build dialogue, not because we think there is a misperception, okay? It is to offer an opportunity through different types of mechanisms to have a dialogue. And I think that that’s very important. If misperceptions come up, that can be addressed. But it’s not an approach that says you don’t understand these three things and we’re going to make sure you understand them. That’s not what – that’s not what this is about. This is about conversation. This is about communication.

QUESTION: Can I ask a question, ma’am?

MS. PANDITH: Yes, please.

QUESTION: Yes. This is Arshad Mahmud from Daily Prothom from Bangladesh. You used the word “nuances” at least 20 times in this, and I’m not quite sure exactly what you mean by that, you know. And in your special position to refer to a colleague’s question, because the perception of the Muslim world is that the Americans always support Israel, you know, to the hilt, and that’s the big problem, you know. And how you are going to change that? And what is your specific ideas about changing these kind of things?

MS. PANDITH: The opportunity to engage in dialogue means that you’re opening up an opportunity for conversation on a wide range of issues, and that may be one of the issues. But on the policy questions, you have an envoy to the Middle East that can actually address those particular things. That’s not what I’m doing. What I’m doing – and I want to go back to what this young woman was talking about. What I’m doing is working with embassies to find ways that we can approach a younger generation as well, in terms of listening to how they want to engage.

And when you talk about nuance, why I’m hitting it as hard as I am is because I think it’s very important to understand that it isn’t just one thing from Washington that’s going to be shoved into everybody’s faces. It’s us finding an opportunity through our embassies to listen to the diversity of thoughts and opinions and ideas, and find ways to actually engage in manners that make sense for a wide variety of communities within a country.

MR. WOOD: Guys, we only have time for really two more questions, unfortunately, because of scheduling.

MS. PANDITH: Yeah, please.

QUESTION: Yes, Samir Nader with Radio Sawa. Congratulations on your position. Will you be responsible in charge of contacts with the Organization of Islamic States, or will – or is the Secretary going to appoint a new representative to replace Ambassador Sada Cumber?

MS. PANDITH: The OIC is under the International Organizations Bureau of the State Department, and I think you’d have to ask that question to Esther Brimmer, the assistant secretary. I don’t know the answer to your question.

QUESTION: But you are not – it’s not part of your responsibilities?

MS. PANDITH: No, no.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: You’ve focused also on the fact that you are trying to work in order to listen to the probably grievances of the Muslims or also trying to engage with the non-official, the organizations, the young people. And a very important conference, Islamic Christian Conference, has just concluded in Damascus was making a big case of what the fate of Jerusalem, and would President Obama’s promise in his speech to the Islamic world, that his policies are going to be built on international laws, UN resolutions, and not on ideological, self-serving interpretation of religious books of such a group. What can you assure – what kind of role are you going to play in the future talking to these people, non-official people, organizations, young people? How are you going to convince them that actually the United States is very serious about pursuing this kind of policy that President Obama has promised, that it is going to be built on UN resolutions, the illegitimacy of acquisition of land by force, Israeli force, and that the United States is going to stand against the eradication of the Palestinians out of Jerusalem and other Palestinian land?

MS. PANDITH: I think the President is the person who has made statements on these issues. I think that the ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, has also made statements on these issues. And I would ask you to refer to them.

I think I’ll take – I think I’ll – yeah, I think we’re actually – there’s one gentleman in the back – poor guy – who’s had his hand up. Yeah.

QUESTION: Excuse me. This is Alim. I’m from APP, Associated Press of Pakistan. I was wondering, how do you intend to approach the people in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Pakistan? Because the U.S. policy is not merely shaped by one approach; it is whole, kind of political, economic, and security issues that are taken into account when people perceive a country. And especially with the recent polls that the U.S. is not perceived favorably, how do you intend to approach people in those areas and come up with solutions?

MS. PANDITH: Well, I’ll be working very closely with my colleagues at the Department to develop ways to do that, so I’m not going to sit here and tell you right now. But definitely, it’s an important priority.

MR. WOOD: Thanks, guys. We’ll have Ms. Pandith back in the future when her schedule (inaudible).

MS. PANDITH: Thank you.

[1] Communities

PRN: 2009/672